The silver screen's long list of vampires, werewolves, serial murderers and persons marooned on islands is being joined by a new addition, taken from B-movies, catastrophe films and other sources of fantasy: zombies. In a new series broadcast on the prestigious American cable network AMC (known for the Mad Men series, among other programs ), "The Walking Dead," there is no lack of dead corpses roaming about, chewing on living persons. In a deliberate move, the premiere of the new zombie series will be broadcast this coming Sunday, on Halloween.
"Some are claiming that zombies are the next vampires," says Sharon Tal Yguado, a 36-year-old Israeli producer who is Fox International Channels' point person for this new zombie project. Interviewed by Haaretz ahead of the zombie series' debut, Tal Yguado substantiates the point by referring to a new film project, "World War Z," featuring Brad Pitt and scheduled for release in 2012, that features a reality 10 years after a major zombie attack. Also, this year witnessed "Rammbock," a German zombie film directed by Marvin Kren; last year there was "Zombieland," a comedy zombie film that should spawn a sequel next year; and a day after the new American zombie series hits television sets, the British network IFC will broadcast its own series, Dead Set, featuring zombies who take over a reality program something akin to Big Brother.
"Our series will be less humorous than these films," says Tal Yguado. "It will be more realistic" - to the extent that a program about dazed-looking corpses sauntering about at night can seem realistic.
The Walking Dead is based on a comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, a 31-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky. His comic books feature the exploits of a group of survivors in South America who remain alive following an apocalyptic event caused by flesh-eating zombies - the plot bears a resemblance to George A. Romero's 1968 classic, "The Night of the Living Dead." Up to now, Kirkman has produced 78 volumes in the comic book series; he is shooting for 300 installments. "The only comic which outsells it is Batman," reports Tal Yguado.
Kirkman's story world begins precisely where most zombie films end. "The ending of every zombie movie is usually: Hey, we ran out of time, let's end this now," Kirkman told The New York Times. "Most of the characters die, or all of the characters die, or the characters that live ride off into the sunset. It always occurred to me that there was a lot more story to tell," he added.
In fact, the new Walking Dead series focuses on the aftermath of a zombie attack. The forthcoming premiere episode combines Cormack McCarthy's 2006 post-apocalypse novel "The Road," the television series "Lost," along with a trace of the BBC's science fiction series "Survivors" that follows the doings of survivors of a horrific epidemic. Needless to say, the new AMC zombie series also rides the scary coattails of the hugely popular "True Blood" television series.
Walking Dead's premier episode has a striking, very well produced scene in which hero Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln, known for his work in the terrific British series "This Life" ), decked in a police uniform, cowboy hat and shiny sheriff's badge, sets out to search for his family. Grimes is injured during his search, lies unconscious and then awakens in an eerie, post-apocalypse hospital. A room in the hospital is locked, and its door has a sign that announces "Do Not Open; Dead Inside." A hand reaches out from inside the room and tries to open the door - the image follows in the tradition of great horror films. Grimes drives off in a car, but runs out of gas; abandoning the vehicle, he mounts a horse. The sheriff and horse gallop off along a superhighway, passing a long line of abandoned cars and human corpses. In its ghoulish way, the scene bears a resemblance to countless Cowboy films - the difference is that it would be placed at the end of a Western, whereas in the Walking Dead it appears right at the start of the story.
It's all about zombies, but the series is not a B-movie. Instead, Walking Dead is a high quality production that benefits from the involvement of well respected film and television professionals. Gail Anne Hurd, known for her work as a producer of "Terminator" and "Aliens," serves as an Executive Producer for Walking Dead. Frank Darabont, director and scriptwriter of "Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption," directed the first episode of this new zombie series.
"Who is responsible for the recent success of AMC, and its ability to attract such high caliber professionals to a new zombie series?
Tal Yguado: "It's not completely clear. Christina Wayne was the head of the programs department until 2005, and she is responsible for developing the Mad Men series. Joel Stillerman, who is responsible for programming right now, also deserves credit. There was also a lot of luck. I really like this group. Yet it is not a well-oiled machine, and AMC was primarily a network for classic movies."
The opening scene of the new series transpires in a disaster-ridden region. Grimes arrives and spots a young girl roaming about - she seems happy and pretty when seen from the back, but when she turns around, Grimes sees a half-eaten, decaying face infested with flies. Not only is she less cute than what first appeared - she also wants to eat Grimes, since zombies devour living flesh. Grimes fires a bullet straight into her head, this being the tried and true way of exterminating zombies. The images are simultaneously revolting and engrossing, and they also provoke curiosity about the popularity of this genre of apocalyptic horror film.
What in our era makes zombie films so popular?
Tal Yguado: "I don't think this is part of a trend. The issue of apocalyptic catastrophe has always been part of American culture. I am married to an American; at least once a week he asks me about what we're going to do when the end of the world comes, where will we hide, what will we eat."
She stresses that the first episode does not entirely foreshadow the contents of the series as a whole. "True, the first episode is a bit like The Road, but the next episodes are very different. This is a film about a journey. The series' hero hears that human survivors live in a kind of compound in Atlanta. There is in this a hint of the [New Orleans] stadium where people were crowded during Hurricane Katrina. One of the characters mentions that the government made a mistake when it herded people into one place, because that makes the zombies' work easier. Rick makes his way there with persons he rescues along the way; conflicts arise between them. The second episode opens with a scorching sex scene, devoid of zombies. The third episode is a genuine telenovela."
Returning to the first episode: Grimes notices a badly wounded zombie. Before he fires into the head of the gruesomely mutilated zombie, he says "I'm sorry this happened to you." Does that indicate that beyond the series' jarring images, there lurks a kind of humor?
Tal Yguado rejects this possibility. "It's not a comedy; it's a fantasy," she says. "The scene is ironic, and the writers aren't really laughing at the genre. Nor is this a satire, like True Blood. I think that Walking Dead is moving more in the direction of Mad Men. The third episode devotes only a quarter of its time to zombies. That's what attracted me, and convinced me to join the project."
Praising the new series, The Wall Street Journal concluded: "What makes The Walking Dead so much more than a horror show is that it plays with theatrical grandeur, on a canvas that feels real, looks cinematic and has an orchestral score to match."
It can be assumed that Sharon Tal Yguado does not get scared easily. Starting in Israel, she reached a senior position in a large Hollywood studio. While attending the New School in New York, she worked for the Oxygen women's television channel; her rise at Oxygen prompted offers to return to Israel, to work for the Nickelodeon channel.
"Once you've grown accustomed to American television, with its huge budgets, it's very difficult to get used to local [Israeli television] budgets," she reflects.
At one stage in her career, she traveled to Italy to pitch a new program. "I entered a room where five men were sitting," she recalls. "They were talking about programs for a women's channel. I saw the broadcast schedule, and it was clear that it was totally wrong - I proposed a few changes. They were enthusiastic."
Fox International in Italy offered her a job. That was her start in the global television arena. "We set up one channel after another." She traveled around the globe, setting up Fox channels. "This was a period of hotels and flights, without end," she says. "I had a big map with lots of flags that marked channels we set up all over the globe. After three years of working on broadcast schedules, I felt I should return to program development. I returned to Los Angeles, and established in Fox studios a development team that worked on various projects."
Tal Yguado does not think her success in overseas television is exceptional. "The number of television development projects that are based on Israeli formats is huge," she says. Virtually everyone who worked on Israel Channel Two has signed up with the William Morris Agency - Israel is no longer a small spot on the map, as far as Hollywood is concerned."